So you've decided you'd like to start lifting weights. Congratulations! You've taken the first step towards being fitter and healthier, slimmer, stronger and with a faster metabolism, improved hormone regulation, denser bones as you age and a central nervous system more resilient to stress. But what now? The world of weight lifting can be daunting, and even just walking into a weight room can be intimidating for the uninitiated. This article can help guide you through your first steps.
Clothes and Equipment
First things first – before you even enter a gym, you need the appropriate equipment and attire. Luckily there are fairly minimum requirements for a beginner.
Clothes – basically, anything that you can move in unrestricted and is comfortable. It's all about personal preference – there are those that wear an oversized t'shirts and shorts, and those that spend hundreds of dollars on the latest pink and black leggings and gym clothes. Somewhere in between is where the majority of people end up. Remember, wearing expensive gym clothes won't make you better at training, and as intimidating as it may be the best dressed are often those that do the least.
Shoes – starting out many people simply wear their runners to their weight lifting sessions. And whilst this does the job, if you are doing a lot of standing lifts or have some cash spare, investing in some weight lifting shoes may be worth your while. The problem with runners, joggers etc. is that the heel is compressible. Whilst this is good for cardio exercises, when you are standing with a weight such as during a squat, it creates instability, reduces power and can prevent you developing the proper form.
Gloves – again, not a necessity, and you can simply use the chalk provided at your local gym. But if you would like to avoid callouses for aesthetic reasons or find yourself distracted by the sometimes painful rubbing on your skin, weight lifting gloves might be a god send.
And that's really all you need for starting out. As you become more advanced or would like to start training at home you might end up with a whole range of equipment, but none of it is necessary to complete a really good workout at the gym.
There are some common do's and don'ts for your time spent in the gym. Read our article Gym Etiquette to really get to grips with it before you go into the gym. It's an easy way to make sure you feel as at home as possible.
Common Words and Terms
To feel at home in the world of weight lifting you need to understand what people are talking about. Here's a list of common lingo that's used.
Pecs – short for pectorals, this means the muscles that are across your chest.
Traps – short for trapezoids, these are the muscles in your upper back – the triangle shaped ones by your neck, hence the name.
Lats – short for latissimus dorsi, these sit in the middle of your back and sides.
Delts – short for deltoids, simply means shoulders.
Bis and Tris – Biceps and triceps are the front and back of your upper arm respectively
Abs – short for abdominals, obviously means your stomach area.
Glutes – short for gluteous maximus, your glutes are your ass.
Quads and hams – short for quadriceps and hamstrings, the front and back of your thigh respectively.
There are also numerous slang terms for the different muscles, but these should cover you. Slang terms such as 'pythons' for you arms are generally only used by men, and tend to be fairly self explanatory anyway.
There are some more general terms that are in common use around a weight lifting room. Some of the more technical terms will be explained as their used, but here is some common jargon:
Bulking/Cutting – bulking is where body builders eat a large number of calories in an attempt to gain muscle and fat. The idea is that most of the calories go into making muscle, and any fat can then be turned into muscle or stripped later. This used to be very common but unless you are a professional bodybuilder it's generally unnecessary – most people execute it poorly and simply end up gaining fat. And for women, it just won't work. It's impossible for women to gain large amounts of muscle. It's also known as mass gaining. Cutting is the alternate phase to bulking, where a restricted number of calories are consumed so that fat is burned. This allows the muscles you've built to stand out in greater detail. It's also known as shredding, or as an adjective, ripped. For most women today fat loss is a common goal, and is what their weight training will be aimed at.
Hard/Easy gainer – this is in reference to body type. Hard gainers find it difficult to put on muscle and are often relatively skinny at their natural weight, and easy gainers find it easy to put on muscle but often will easily gain fat too. In terms of women's bodies, it's the different between being naturally quite waif-life and thin, or a bit stronger and fuller.
Identifying your Body Type
How you train will depend on your body type, as well as your goals, time constraints, preferred type of exercise, etc. Generally body types fall into one of three categories -
Ectomorphs – these people have naturally light, delicate frames. They very little body fat but also have very little muscle, giving them a stringy look. Their metabolisms are very fast. If you are an ectomorph you may have to work harder to define and tone your muscles, making your body more shapely, but don't need to concentrate on losing fat.
Endomorphs – these people have a solid body frame and a softer, rounder look. They gain fat easily, and find it difficult to lose. It tends to be stored in the lower region of the body, such as hips and thighs. Their muscles are less defined, and have a slow metabolism. If you are an endomorph diet is particularly important to help keep unwanted fat off, but you can create beautiful shapely muscles relaively easily.
Mesomorphs – these people naturally have the classic athletic look. They have a hard body with well defined muscles, and tend to gain muscle easily. They gain fat more easily than an ectomorph, but lose it quickly as well. It tends to be stored evenly over the body. you are a mesomorph you won't have to work as hard as the other body types to create and tone your muscles, but will need a balanced diet to avoid becoming too skinny, where your body may become fairly masculine, or too fat, where you will look bulky.
Weight lifting Run Down
Walking into the weights room there's a huge range of different exercise machines and weights. It's difficult to know where to begin. Overall it can be divided into two sections:
Free Weights – these are weights that aren't attached to anything. You're traditional dumbbells and bars come into this category. You use them to complete set exercises – generally they involve more muscles since you have to stabilise the weight, and are a more natural movement. However they are also more technical and have a higher risk of injury when completed incorrectly.
Machine weights – these are weights set into a machine, where the path of movement is set. All that you have to do is sit/stand/lie on the machine as the diagram shows you and move the weight in the only direction it can go. Much easier for beginners, but these tend to only use specific muscles without the general core strength that comes from balancing, and can force your body into unnatural movements paths.
The types of exercises you can then complete with these weights can also be divided into two sections:
Compound movements – this basically means you use a selection muscles to lift the weight, meaning you are working many at once. These tend to be the easiest way to tone your body and become more athletic and stronger for beginners.
Isolation movements – these pick out very specific muscles, and work them alone. They tend to be a little more complex, and require much more thought put into your weeks training plan. They tend to be used to fill out gaps in a compound workout, or for bodybuilders for aesthetic reasons.
Once you have picked your selection of exercises for your workout, you need to work out how many times to complete them. A little bit more slang here – each time you complete an exercise, it's called a repetition, or rep for short. These are then done a specific number of times, ranging from once up to 15 or 20. Each time you reach the number of repetitions you're aiming for, it's called a set. Once you finish a set, you tend to have a timed rest, and then repeat.
The number of reps completed depends upon the weight you're lifting – heavier weights mean less reps, and light weights mean more. Advanced weight lifters can go down to a 'one rep max', meaning the weight is so heavy they can only lift it once. In comparison, you sometimes see, and I hate to be sexist but in particular females, people lifting weights barely heavier than a can of beans for endless numbers of repetitions. This will build muscular endurance, sure, but it won't achieve the 'tone' most women are looking for, or burn as much fat, since the muscles simply aren't being stressed enough.
You're all prepared. You know the lingo, have got your towel, and are all kitted out in your exercise gear. Now what?
Firstly, seriously consider hiring a personal trainer. If you can afford, paying for a personal trainer can be a big help at first, even if it's just for one, two or three sessions to get the form down, and you can then proceed from there. Learning bad technique in the beginning is much harder to correct later. Although bringing a weight lifting friend to help you may seem like a cheaper alternative, they aren't trained in teaching and have often forgotten what beginners need to focus on, as well as underestimating the need to start slow for maximum benefit. If personal training sessions are out of your price range, start with some YouTube videos that go over the common mistakes people make in each lift, and how to correct them.
For those of you who like the idea of having a professional start you off, here are some tips on choosing the right one:
Good credentials. Make sure you ask for their educational background, and how long they have been training for.
Compatible personality. It's no use having a trainer with a qualifications up to their eyeballs that doesn't work for you. The army drill sergant approach might work for some, but to others it just knocks their confidence. Likewise, a trainer that doesn't push you won't help you make any improvement.
Personal attention. They should be focused on you for the duration of your session and alter your training to suit your body. If you feel like you're just another client with a generic workout not tailored to suit you, you're not getting your money's worth.
Once you have found your ideal trainer, remember that there is some responsibility on you, too. They are often busy people with exacting schedules, so show up on time, have a good attitude, and don't undermine their knowledge with complaints about how your hairdresser told you to do something different. However, if something feels wrong or you're confused, don't hesitate to ask questions or get a second opinion.
It can be difficult to get to grips with all the different lifts and exercises available. For beginners, it is best to focus on a small number and get really good at them, and then increase gradually. Getting really good at them doesn't mean lifting inordinately heavy weights, but rather having an exacting 'form', or technique, for lifting. Having a bad form will put you at risk for injuries, as well as not gaining the full benefit of the lift.
Here are six exercises often recommended for beginners. They are movements that utilise lots of different muscles, and cover the whole body without the need for isolation exercises. Each movement, as well as targeting legs or arms, uses the torso to stabilise and result in well rounded looking bodies. Relatively easy to learn, you can progress very far without even needing any other exercises.
Click on the links for more detail about how to perform each exercise. When choosing exercises, choose 3 per workout that will cover the entire body. The 6 above split in half to form two training sessions – one to three for one session, and four to five for another.
Once you feel you have mastered these six, you can move on to learning new lifts. For some examples of other exercises and the body parts they work, have a look at... Just remember to try and stick to big, compound exercises that use many joints and muscles.
How Often Should I Train?
Although it was popularised for a while to train as much as possible, in actuality rest days are just as important as training days. Train no more than two to three times a week, and allow your body to fully recover before training again.
How Many Reps and Sets Should I Do?
For beginners, generally 8 - 12 reps represent a suitable compromise for general fitness and strength. In terms of sets, most research points at only 1 – 2 reps being necessary to achieve significant results for beginners. It is customary to choose 3 exercises focusing on different areas of the body per workout – this results in 8-12 reps done 1 or 2 times for each of the 3 exercises.
How Much Weight Should I Use?
This can vary hugely, and there is no set number of kilos. It all depends on the individual. Put simply, you want the weight to be heavy enough that you can complete the 12 reps, with enough strength to complete maybe one more but no more than that. If you feel like you could keep going with relative ease it's too light, and if you can't reach the 12 or just make it with poor form it's too heavy.
When you begin, start with a weight you know you can lift 12 times, and increase gradually if it's too light in small increments. It's better to start too light for your first few weeks, in order to really get to grips with the exercises.
Recovery and Coping with Sore Muscles
Especially at the beginning, sore muscles will just be a part of your training. There are some methods to reduce the pain you'll feel the following day:
Drink lots – water will help flush out toxins and transport nutrients to your muscles, helping with repair.
Eat high quality protein and carbohydrate – more about this in the supplements section, but basically your body needs the building blocks of muscle and energy to repair itself.
Stretch – very gentle, active stretching may help with feelings of soreness.
Move around – easy, gently exercise such as walking will promote circulation.
Get a Massage – improves circulation and removes tension from your muscles.
Shower – depending on your preference, hot showers can ease the tensions in sore muscles, wereas cold showers will help you recover faster by constricting and dilating the blood vessels, assisting with toxin removal. If your game you can try alternating between hot and cold for two minutes at a time, the most effective method.
Sleep – getting enough sleep in terms of time and quality is essential, since most of the body's repair work is done at night.
The most effective thing you can do to recover is simply to rest. Don't over-train, make sure you are completely recovered from one session before training again. If pain is sharp, particularly severe or persists for several days, you may have an injury and should seek a doctor's advice before beginning training again.
For more information continue on to our beginners guide to nutrition and supplements.